Boosting your employability | The Careers Service Boosting your employability – Oxford University Careers Service
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What are ‘core employability skills’?

Often known as ‘soft skills’, these are a core set of competencies expected and sought by employers for any position of responsibility and influence. They relate to our ability to interpret the world around us, relate to people effectively and to set, then meet, organisational goals.

We have explained the eight core skills that typically recognised across all job sectors, and listed under essential and desired qualities in job descriptions. The balance of skills and any particular priorities will vary across roles and organisations, so it is wise to discover as much as possible about what is wanted as you explore potential routes and before applying.

Under each skill is a list of ways to prove or improve this skill, all of which are achievable while studying or working at Oxford.

Preparing for academia

Core employability skills are increasingly relevant for academia, even if not made explicit in the job description.

Commercial awareness is vital to understanding the position of an academic department and its development opportunities amidst economic and political change affecting funding streams.

Leadership, management and strategic thinking skills are invaluable to departments preparing submissions for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research and allocating funds accordingly.

For further insight, see our section on Pursuing Academia in What’s next for you?

Developing skills for an academic career

The organisation Vitae exists to support the development of researchers across all sectors. You have access to their resources through Oxford’s membership. Vitae’s ‘Researcher development Framework’ (RDF) sets out in detail the skills required for and gained through research (and broader academic) endeavours; it can be used as a tool for bench-marking your current level in each of the 63 identified skills and familiarising yourself with what will be expected in more senior academic roles.

Perhaps more usefully, you can assess your skill development using a specific lens on the RDF that focuses on leadership, knowledge exchange, public engagement, teaching, intrapreneurship or employability beyond academia.

Talking to existing postdocs and visiting other research groups or labs will help you gain insights into relevant skill-sets for your area and those relating to institutional priorities.  Ask your supervisor and others in your department for suggestions as to who to talk to. Consider showing them a draft CV and ask them to comment on how effectively you are demonstrating your skills.

What do employers beyond academia think about you?

Recruitment is similar to match-making in that the fit has got to work both ways. We tend to dwell on trying to understand which work settings may suit us best, rarely considering how a research background is understood in working worlds outside academia.

Our research amongst employers shows that some may have out-dated, stereotypical views of academic research, for example that it only involves staring down a microscope or at ancient manuscripts. Others see it as involving very long time horizons such as thesis submission after three or four years, not realising that there are multiple project deadlines within this. Another common perception is that researchers always prefer to work independently and have little or no experience of teamwork.

One could laugh at these stereotypes or dismiss them because they do not reflect personal experience. Yet the reason to pay attention is that they will to some extent shape the way your application is seen.

Read more on employer perspectives and careers beyond academia in our Early Career Researchers blog.

Come to Careers Fairs to get the inside track

Meeting people is the best way to understand what every day working life is like in any given sector, and to hear what organisations are looking for in new recruits.

Every year we run a one day a large number of Careers Fairs catering to all interests, plus a one day Careers Conference for Researchers at the end of Hilary term. Scan our online booklets from previous fairs and conferences for full details of the varied organisations participating, and listen to podcasts from employees (some of whom have doctorates) found in ‘our resources’ of our relevant sector pages. Remember; participating organisations want to recruit from Oxford and have paid to have their contact details in the booklet, so will happily respond to your questions by email or phone.

Face-to-face conversations are ideal when exploring your options. Come to as many events as you can and keep an open mind. There’s no need to sign-up for the fairs, and we open bookings for the Conference in January.

At  most fairs we run Researchers@, a pre-fair hour hosted at the same venue by a specialist Careers Adviser to discuss how to get the most from the fair. You can book a place using CareerConnect.

One week before the fair, download the brochure and decide who you’d like to talk to so you can be sure to have your questions answered.

Audit your skills and spot any gaps

Your skills will broaden and deepen as you progress through your research degree and related job.

Check that you understand the broad core employability skill listed on our page and if you’re pressed for time, use these for a quick audit of what you can demonstrate.

We now have two excellent tools for tallying your technical and core employability skills and broader strengths (your values, work style, personality etc).in a fun, systematic way.

Career Weaver is a web-based application to help you identify, take ownership of and articulate clearly some underlying beliefs, preferences and strengths which are important for career planning and your success.

Use relevant exercises in these tools to identify key skills gaps and look for opportunities to fill them using our tips on these pages, or in discussion with your supervisor (especially in your annual Training Needs Analysis) or with a Careers Adviser (by booking an appointment).

Prioritising what is important and being 'job ready'

If you are very busy, take a moment to reassess your priorities: What matters most in the long term, your PI’s project or your ability to contribute to the world?

In the NatureJobs blog, David Bogle, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UCL and chair of the LERU (League of European Research universities) Doctoral Studies Policy Group emphasises the importance of investing time and resources in effective skill-development opportunities for careers in all sectors: “lots of the research might not be going anywhere, (but) the newly trained postdoc will. Every postdoc must eventually move on to a new position and will make a difference there. We need them all to be given skills and confidence to do this for the benefit of us all, whether in business, industry, academia and society in general.”

Be bold in your decision to set time aside for investigating and pursuing activities suited to your needs and interests: all research staff are eligible for professional development time within contracted hours (see leveraging your postdoc), and students are actively encouraged to take up offers of training focusing on personal and professional development as well as the technicalities of the PhD.

Being job-ready also relies on knowing and using the terminology of particular careers sectors in your application and even those early, exploratory conversations. Our top tips are to

  • Look carefully at organisational websites and recent job descriptions for vacancies, then try crafting a skills-based CV for roles beyond academia.
  • Talk to people who work at the interfaces of your academic work and relevant policy or business areas, and develop skills and pleasure in ‘networking’ that is genuinely rewarding (then use these insights to re-work your CV and inform your cover letter or speculative approach).

For evidence on why and how you can network effectively for all concerned, read Sarah Blackford’s article. Her conclusions hold for early career researchers in the sciences and beyond.

How can I fill critical gaps or boost my skills?

We provide suggestions for developing your employability skills  in and around Oxford that require short or longer term commitments. Raising these options in your annual Training Needs Assessment or Professional/Career Development Review (PDR or CDR) will help your supervisor or line manager support you in making wise, timely choices.

If you want to combine core skill-building with professional networking in a sector you care about, think about joining the team of Oxford postdocs and DPhils running

“Being on this friendly and productive team allows me to reach out to former postdocs in organisations of particular interest to me, and is honing my communication and editorial skills. I find the light and flexible work flow easy to manage alongside my job.” (Oxford postdoc, 2018)

To find out more about joining, write to

Consider the value of, and best timing for activities needing a bit more time:

  • The Researcher Strategy Consultancy an experience-based programme to bolster skills needed for technical or management consulting (or other business or policy facing roles) yet rarely honed in early academia, including leadership, strategic thinking and customer focus. Participants work on genuine projects from clients in the private, voluntary and public sectors, achieving specific deliverables to inform decision-making and are quotable on a CV.
  • The Researcher Strategy Consultancy: Health and Life Sciences works in the same way and sources projects from clients working in the health and life science sector. Participants come from all disciplines and humanities or social science applicants are encouraged.
  • Summer and termly Micro-Internships via the Careers Service are open to all students.
  • Oxford’s internships (for students) and external opportunities (many for students and research staff) are advertised on CareerConnect.
  • Follow our advice on how to approach an organisation to negotiate some work experience or a bespoke internship.

Check out the careers training offered by your Divisional training teams and others. Many workshops are now open to all:

Stepping stones from academia to research-intensive roles

Cast your eyes a bit wider to identify emerging opportunities in various work sectors where quantitative or qualitative research skills are being sought in ways you never imagined…

Keep tabs on the UK government’s priority research areas by browsing Innovate UK’s current open competitions, many of which ask for research organisations, small business and/or wider collaboration. You can subscribe to their regular summary via

If your focus is international, look for these themes on similar sites hosted by relevant national governments or research councils and/or in the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Being in Oxford gives you access to many opportunities for ‘light-touch’ engagement with people engaged in or connected to areas of work that intersect with your research interests or skills. The choice of options can be overwhelming, so…

  • Start by browsing on the list of Oxford’s wide-ranging student clubs and societies then attend a meeting to find out more.
  • Attend one of Enterprising Oxford’s regular events to connect members of the University with local social, environmental and business-related entrepreneurship and browse their site for upcoming training or skill-sharing.
  • And if you are keen to get practical experience in these areas, consider volunteering or becoming a trustee via OxfordHub who offer opportunities to all residents of Oxford and are particularly keen on DPhil students and research staff for many roles.

Some University societies have a core interest in the use and application of technologies; others are more cause-driven in their call for practical innovations.  Oxford Entrepreneurs runs a major conference, a pitching competition, treks to visit starts ups and in November runs the annual Oxfordhack, a student hackathon hosted by the Institute of Mathematics. There is a large, active University Artificial Intelligence Society  which collaborates with other groups in the University and the Said Business School to explore this emerging field and its applications for people from all disciplines.

Look out for Hackathons that are are open to all and require no previous coding experience.

‘Bootcamps’ can be an effective way to explore and equip yourself for using your skills in another sector. Some are quite costly, so do your research before committing yourself. Seek to understand what outcomes previous attendees have achieved, whether participants are introduced to recruiting companies during the course, and how quickly they enter work on course completion.  To start you research, take a look at’s research and reviews online.

This information was last updated on 13 December 2019.
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